Life at the Cleaners

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Working in the heat of a dry cleaners is not something most people dream of doing, but 87-year-old Betty Louise Kiefer has been doing just that for nearly seven decades.

When a customer stops at the drive-thru of Horstman’s Cleaners & Furriers, 303 S. University Ave., they’re likely to see Kiefer sticking her head out the window with a friendly smile stretched across her face — patiently waiting to serve the next person in line.

Kiefer began working at Horstman’s when she was 18 years old as a way to help her husband build their home in De Soto, where she still lives today.

“We’d order a load of lumber and we’d get that paid for and we’d order another load of lumber until we got our house built,” she said.

Kiefer said many people do not want to work in the cleaners because of the heat during summer or because the pay is not as good as other jobs. But the dry cleaners is right where she wants to be.

“We do the best job we can do and most people will tell you we’re the best cleaners,” Kiefer said. “And there’s not too many left in southern Illinois.”

Kiefer spends most of her time waiting on customers and checking in their clothing.

“That’s a full day’s job sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes I get caught up and I’ll come to the back and I’ll bag clothing or wait on the customers as they come in to you.”

Jon Kirk, owner of Horstman’s, said there is no one like Kiefer.

“Betty has got a fantastic memory,” said Dianne Kirk, Horstman’s employee and Jon’s mother. “She remembers the name of everybody I think that she’s ever waited on. Or maybe questions they’ve asked. Everybody loves Betty. Friendly, dependable, great friend.”

The small woman doesn’t just handle dresses and slacks. When the heavy lifting is needed, Kiefer can do that, too.

Kiefer said Horstman’s has cleaned drapes for the Varsity Center for the Arts. The curtains were so big the staff had to go outside just to fold them.

When she isn’t tending to customers’ suits or helping fold massive theater drapes, Kiefer is doing what she loves most — meeting people.

“I just like it and people seem to like me,” Kiefer said. “They expect me to be out there if they come. I’m the fixture at Horstman’s Cleaners.”

During her off-time, she visits family in Murphysboro and her sister in Granite City.

“I lost my husband in 1984 so I just continued working,” Kiefer said. “I had my grandkids for a while and they kind of grew up on me. So I just continue working because I like it. … [Horstman’s is] just a family thing that’s all I can say. I consider them all family and, they do me.”